It's time to stop pursuing social licence and start building trust

Is the pursuit of social licence to blame for the less than best practice engagement that most communities endure?

Despite project team's claims to the contrary, much of the community engagement we deliver is not best practice. Sometimes it’s not even ‘good enough’ practice.

I suggest the fault lies with the pursuit of social licence, and the one-sided, transactional mindset it creates. In fact, I’m certain social licence does not really exist – it cannot be seen or heard, and it certainly cannot be measured.

So why do we keep talking about it as if it does?

Even if you buy into the concept of social licence, it should never be the objective of your engagement with communities affected by your project or proposal.

Why do I say this?

It's a relationship people!

That’s right, a project and project team’s relationship with affected communities is just like any other relationship in your life – it is ongoing and always evolving. There is never the end point that social licence implies.

And we would never treat others in our lives the way we often treat communities.

Would you invite a friend or date out to dinner only to spend the whole time talking about yourself, insisting the conversation only be about the things that you want to talk about, and only being interested in hearing what they think if it is about you?

For communities, their relationship with projects and project teams is often exactly this sort of one-sided affair. And sadly, where major infrastructure projects are concerned, this is a life-long relationship for the community.

So, if we are not pursuing social licence, what should we focus on to deliver positive outcomes?

Building trust

We need to change our mindset. We need to develop and implement engagement approaches that demonstrate to communities that we are worthy of their trust.

This takes both time and effort but is essential for developing and maintaining constructive and mutually beneficial relationships with affected communities.

Six key behaviours to demonstrate your trustworthiness

In my experience, there are six key behaviours that you need to demonstrate your trustworthiness and develop positive relationships with affected communities. You need to:

  • Be honest about your intent in terms of both the project and engaging with the community, and the processes you will be undertaking.
  • Be reliable and consistent in the way you communicate and do what you say you will do.
  • Be open to hearing community perspectives and difficult truths about your project and what it means for community members.
  • Be considerate of community feelings and their experiences, including broader issues and events that may be affecting them.
  • Be accommodating of other ways of approaching elements of the project that better address community needs and expectations.
  • Be realistic about the time, effort, and resources it takes to engage respectfully, and ensure these are accounted for in project budgets, timeframes and team structures.

Doing better

Demonstrating trustworthiness and building trust with communities takes time and effort but the benefits are worth it.

Having a positive and constructive relationship with the community, and creating a ‘trust bank’, is essential for responding to and managing the problems that inevitably arise around projects.  

Making the cognitive shift from the transactional and static concept of social licence to an active, behavioural approach that focusses on building trust will be the first step in developing and maintaining positive relationships with affected communities that deliver lasting, mutual benefits.

So next time you’re part of a conversation about pursuing a social licence, ask – what do we need to do to demonstrate to affected communities we’re trustworthy and want a positive and constructive relationship into the future?

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